A Taste of Honey

Singer/bassist/guitarist/songwriter Janice Marie Johnson, as a founding member of A Taste of Honey, sang lead on the million-selling hits “Boogie Oogie Oogie” and a cover of Kyu Sakamoto’s 1963 gold hit “Sukiyaki.” The group won the 1978 Grammy for Best New Artist. The number one R&B/pop “Boogie Oogie Oogie” was used in a national TV ad campaign by fast food chain Burger King during summer 1999. The track has also been sampled by hip-hop and rap groups MC Lyte, Mac 10, and others. Johnson also sang background vocals on Lionel Richie’s ten-million-selling LP Can’t Slow Down. Capitol Records released as a part of their Double Shot series a two-album single CD that included the group’s debut album, “A Taste of Honey” (includes a 12″ remix of “Boogie Oogie Oogie”) and Twice As Sweet (includes “Sukiyaki”) in January 2000.

The Los Angeles native, whose father was a musician, started playing music as a small child. Growing up, Johnson sang in L.A.-area jazz clubs, opening for Miles Davis, among others. While attending college she began playing bass. About 1971, Johnson met keyboardist Percy Kibble while auditioning for a vacation cruise gig with Princess Cruises lines, and the two started a band using the title of one of their favorite songs, “A Taste of Honey,” as the band’s moniker. Adding guitarist Hazel Payne and drummer Donald Johnson, they began playing Southern California bars and military bases in the U.S. and abroad.

After meeting with producers Fonce Mizell (formerly of the Motown songwriting/arranging/producing collective The Corporation that had hits with the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” and “The Love You Save”) and his brother Larry Mizell who had success with LTD (“Love Ballad”), the group was signed to Capitol Records by Larkin Arnold after meeting him after a performance at the wedding of Smokey Robinson’s bass player.

While playing before a staring, apathetic audience during a gig at an airbase in San Bernardino, CA, Johnson improvised these lyrics: “If you’re thinking that you’re too cool to boogie/we’ve got news for you/everyone here tonight must boogie/and you are no exception to the rule.” The infamous bass solo intro on “Boogie Oogie Oogie” came about when Johnson was warming up before the recording session unaware that she was being recorded. The single “Boogie Oogie Oogie” b/w “World Spin” sold more than two million copies, and topped Billboard’s charts at number one R&B/pop for three weeks in fall 1978. After the huge success of “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” Johnson detested the group being labeled as a “disco group,” but that would change later in a big way. The follow-up single, the slinky funky “Do It Good” b/w “I Love You” went to number 13 R&B in summer 1979. The A Taste of Honey album went platinum, going to number six pop in summer 1978.

A Taste of Honey was a favorite in Japan long before signing with Capitol, having traveled there to play military bases and entering the Yamaha Song Festival. One of Johnson’s favorite records was Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki.” After hearing Linda Ronstadt’s version of Smokey’s “Oo Baby Baby,” Johnson decided that the group (now Johnson and Payne) should do a remake of a classic song. Contacting her Japanese subpublisher who in turn contacted the original writers, Rokusuke EI and Hachidai Nakamura, to get permission to redo the song with English lyrics. After employing two translators, one of which came up with lyrics that were close to the bittersweet theme of the original song title, which translated into English as “I Look Up When I Walk (To Keep the Tears From Falling),” Johnson decided to add her own original lyrics to the song.

A publishing rights dispute almost stopped the song from being released. The resolution was for Johnson giving up all songwriting and publishing rights to her new version before Capitol was able to release it. She yielded all those rights believing that her new version of “Sukiyaki” would take A Taste of Honey out of the disco category. But Capitol wasn’t too eager about releasing “Sukiyaki” as a single, instead releasing both “Rescue Me” and “I’m Talkin ‘Bout You.” Others discouraged Johnson from dressing in Japanese attire and doing a fan dance while performing the song. Forced by massive album track radio play, the label finally released “Sukiyaki” b/w “Don’t You Lead Me On” as a single, with it going to number one R&B, number three pop in spring 1981. The Twice As Sweet LP went to number 36 Pop in spring 1981.

After “Sukiyaki” was a hit, the duo went to Japan and toured with Kyu Sakamoto. Other A Taste of Honey singles were a cover of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “I’ll Try Something New” b/w “Good-Bye Baby” (number nine R&B in early 1982).

After Hazel Payne quit A Taste of Honey, Janice Marie Johnson released a solo Capitol LP, “One Taste of Honey”. Once again there was an internal riff within the label about what should be the lead single. Johnson says label president Jim Mazza was a strong supporter of her solo debut that was created in part to honor her record contract obligations. Unfortunately, by the time the LP was released, Mazza was no longer with Capitol. One charting single, the softly, “Sukiyaki”-ish “Love Me Tonite” made it to number 67 R&B in summer 1984 and became a post-release favorite.

Sometime afterwards while without a recording deal, Johnson observed a limo driver putting price tags on jewelry while she waited for her passenger to return. Inquiring about a job, Johnson drove long stretch limos for various clients around Los Angeles for a short time. After being encouraged by her fans’ requests for new music at her live concerts, Johnson went back into the recording studio.

Urban R&B vocal group Four P.M. had a hit cover of “Sukiyaki,” which is on their 1995 LP Now’s The Time from PGD/Polygram. Johnson released the disc Hiatus of the Heart on the Tastebuds label in 2000.

A Taste of Honey Website